The Senate will take up one of two nominations to fill vacancies of Connecticut judges on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week as Democrats race to confirm more of President Joe Biden’s nominees before the November elections — or at least by the end of the year.
Sarah Merriam was nominated by Biden last year to serve as a federal district court judge in Connecticut but was quickly elevated earlier this year when he tapped her to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Circuit Judge Susan Carney. A procedural vote is scheduled for Wednesday, followed by an eventual vote on confirmation to the 2nd Circuit.
But Merriam is not the only vacancy in Connecticut that Democrats are hoping to tackle over the next few months. In late July, Biden also nominated Maria Araujo Kahn, who serves as an associate justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court, for another spot on the 2nd Circuit Court.
There are also vacancies for another federal court in the state. If Merriam secures confirmation, that will open up her seat on the U.S. District Court for Connecticut. And on that same court, Chief Judge Stefan Underhill recently said he will take senior status in November, which will give Biden another opportunity to make an appointment, according to Law360.
Since returning to Washington from recess last week, Senate Democrats are specifically prioritizing Circuit Court nominations with the Nov. 8 midterm elections quickly approaching and the possibility of losing their majority in the upper chamber.
The Senate is only in session for several more weeks between now and the election, and while judicial nominations are a top concern for the party, Congress still needs to deal with government funding, since it runs out by Sept. 30.
If they are unable to process enough nominations by then, Democrats say they still have some time in the lame duck session before the end of the year and when Congress swears in a new session. But if Democrats ultimately hold the Senate after the midterms, they will be afforded much more time to fill vacancies on the federal judiciary during the last two years of Biden’s term.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., acknowledged that getting through all of the nominations, including the ones for Connecticut, will be a “challenge,” but he is hopeful his party can get through many of them by year’s end.
“I think it’s smart to have the circuit courts be the priority. I hope that we’ll stay here for as long as it takes to get the circuit courts done,” Murphy said in an interview. “Obviously, members want to be back home campaigning — then you’re on top of the holidays. But I think there’s a lot of good will in our caucus to stay here some long hours through the end of the year to get nominations done.”
The 2nd Circuit Court is based in New York City and has jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York and Vermont. Three of the 13 lifetime appointments go to a nominee from Connecticut. Biden has the chance to fill two of those Connecticut seats, while former President Donald Trump appointed William Nardini, who’s sat on the bench since 2019.
On Monday evening, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., filed cloture on Merriam’s nomination, which prompted a procedural vote to limit debate on Wednesday. If she gets support from a simple majority, the Senate will then move to the final confirmation vote, though an exact date is uncertain.
Merriam has a history of winning bipartisan support in a narrowly divided Senate. When she was nominated to the U.S. District Court last year, she was confirmed in a 54-46 vote. Four Republican senators joined all Democrats in supporting her confirmation, though it is not guaranteed she will get similar support this time around for a 2nd Circuit Court seat.
Biden has sought to expand diversity in the federal judiciary when it comes to not only gender and race but also in professional background, which includes nominating more people with backgrounds as public defenders. Merriam is a former federal public defender and previously helped manage the campaigns of Democratic senators in Connecticut, including Murphy.
“She will be the sixth Circuit Court judge this chamber has considered since the beginning of this work period,” Schumer said in a Tuesday floor speech. “I made clear confirming more of President Biden’s judicial nominees would be a top priority for Senate Democrats, and we’re making good on our promise by voting on six Circuit Court judges in the first two weeks of this work period alone.”
As of Monday, the Senate has confirmed 80 federal judges nominated by Biden: one Supreme Court justice, 21 for circuit court seats and 58 district court appointments.
Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate have made confirming judges a priority. He has appointed more federal judges at this point in his presidency than any president since John F. Kennedy, according to Pew Research Center.
While the Senate is making progress on Merriam’s nomination, it is unclear when the chamber will take further steps on Kahn, who was nominated several months after Merriam.
Kahn, who would replace retiring Judge Jose Cabranes if she is confirmed, is a former federal prosecutor and public defender and has served as a judge on two other state courts. She was born in Angola to Portuguese parents and emigrated from Africa to the U.S. as a child.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he’s pushing to get Kahn’s appointment on the docket before the November election. Blumenthal sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which processes judicial nominations. A hearing before the committee about Kahn’s nomination has yet to be scheduled.
“There’s been no scheduling for her, but I’m very hopeful we will reach her,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “Potentially, the lame duck could consider a number of these nominees. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to move forward in the lame duck.”
Senate Democrats have already made some substantial progress to install new federal judges in Connecticut.
Last year, the Senate confirmed three nominations to the U.S. District Court in Connecticut, which included Merriam. The other judges who were confirmed included Omar Antonio Williams and Sarala Vidya Nagala, who became the first federal judge from Connecticut of South Asian descent.
Democrats only need a simple majority to confirm any judicial nominees. But confirmation isn’t guaranteed especially with a divided 50-50 Senate where absences of senators or even a small lack of support can doom a vote.
That scenario happened Tuesday, when Democrats failed to reach a majority on the confirmation vote for Arianna Freeman to the 3rd Circuit, though they plan to take another vote in the future. Like Merriam, Freeman is also a former public defender and would become the first Black woman on the appellate court in Pennsylvania.
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.